NOTE: This story was originally published on March 22, 2011, and was located on the archived Preserving York website. It has been republished here for your enjoyment, and may have been edited for content and clarity from its original form.
In early 1998, I discovered the identity of my 5th great-grandparents, George Christopher Stoehr and Maria Dorothea Doudel. George, born to John Mathias and Johanna Catherine (Steinicker) Stoehr, was most likely well known in York Town. He was a Revolutionary War veteran, potter by trade, and served as York’s first High Constable, or Chief of Police after York Town was incorporated. George was affiliated with Christ Lutheran Church and was a member of “The Singing Choir”. He is depicted in some Lewis Miller drawings, and the York Heritage Trust Museum even displays a portrait of him. Paintings of him and his wife were seen 10 years ago at a local antique show, listed at $15,000. Dorothea was born to Jacob and Anna Maria (Spangler) Doudel, and gave birth to 8 children between 1776 – 1794.
Upon leaning of these early family members, I discovered a photograph from 1937 that showed a pair of tombstones which turned out to be George and Dorothea. The description stated the stones were discovered in a crawlspace under Zion Lutheran Church during renovations. This made me want to learn more about the church, and how the tombstones ended up in such an unlikely location. (See part 1 of this blog series)
While investigating this church and its “tucked away” graveyard, I learned that Zion Lutheran Church had moved out of the city in 1995, and that same year, York County purchased the property for possible use in pending courthouse expansion. I was determined to do what I could to save this property and locate the graves.
I contacted York County government officials and was directed to Charlie Noll, York County Chief Clerk/Administrator, who was very eager to assist me. He agreed to allow me to search for these graves and had me contact Charlie Tyson, who at the time was the supervisor in charge of all of York County’s properties. We scheduled a day to meet at the church, so I could do a preliminary investigation of the property. Mr. Tyson was a very pleasant man and gave me a tour of the facility. I was surprised to find some large grave markers in the actual church. There were 4 of them in a hallway area and still has me wondering what made the men who built this church implement them into the construction.
After finishing a tour of the church, we headed down a narrow stairway to the basement and discovered the first crawlspace. The height of this area allowed you to hunch over while walking through it. Located underneath the gymnasium, which was added years after the original construction, this crawlspace did not contain any graves. In another section of the basement was a small opening in a wall which we peered into with a flashlight. In the distance, and barely visible in the darkness, was a lone tombstone. This was what I was looking for, the crawlspace containing my ancestors graves. Unprepared for more thorough investigation, I returned home to prepare for my next visit.
Seeking to gain publicity for this discovery, I contacted local newspaper “York Daily Record”, who was eager to cover the story. During my next visit, former co-worker Jim Kohlman accompanied me, out of curiosity as well as “safety in numbers”. Moments after meeting again with Charlie Tyson, YDR reporter Mike Mender and photographer Paul Kuehnel arrived. Jim and I previously discussed what we would need for this adventure – long pants and shirt, bandana, gloves, face mask, a miners type headlamp, flashlight, and camera. Unfortunately, the camera I had at the time was a 35mm, so my photographs were not as good as I had hoped for.
The opening to this crawlspace was very small and was only large enough to slide a body through. The area we would be exploring was very low, and you were forced to use an “army-crawl” approach to get around. The dirt was not exposed to sunlight or any type of precipitation in over 100 years and was very dry and powdery. Even wearing dust masks, you could taste the dirt in your mouth. Surprisingly, when I turned around to see how far from the opening I had traveled, Paul was right there at our feet, camera in hand.
The entire crawlspace was the dimension of the old church, but it was separated by stone supporting walls. There were parts of these walls that were removed to allow access to each sub-section. I chose to investigate one area at a time and crawled from the back to the front of each one. When I reached the area that would be the front of the church, I could peer into the crawlspace of the vestibule. I chose not to enter, as this was lower than what we were currently in.
Navigating over loose rocks and pieces of wood, I examined the tombstone we saw from the opening in the wall. The stone was difficult to read, but I could make out the name Ilgenfritz. Upon examining other sections of crawlspace I discovered two large grave-covers. It appeared that they were pulled off of the original graves, and a shallow hole remained. It’s unknown if the bodies were moved to another cemetery.
While investigating this crawlspace, we discovered some other interesting things. Behind my ancestor’s tombstones was a trench dug into the ground, most likely for access to pipes and wiring. In the walls of the trench, you were able to see small pieces of wood from caskets, and even some pieces of bone from those buried in the old graveyard. The most surprising find was a small wooden box resting in the area of my ancestors tombstones. The box was either damaged or partially open, but appeared to contain bones. My guess is when the trench was dug, the bones that were unearthed were placed in this box. We gave this find a brief moment of silence, and decided we had overstayed our welcome. We made our way out of the crawlspace, clothing and faces dirtied from this isolated cemetery.
In Memory of GEORGE CHRISTOPHER STOEHR who was born February the 8th 1751 departed this life July 22nd 1821, aged 70 years, 5 months, and 14 days.
In Memory of DOROTHY STOEHR who was born February 14th 1753 and died September 19th 1833, aged 80 years, 7 months, and 5 days
A few years later, I returned to the church with Lila Furhman-Shaull, Director of Library and Archives at the York Heritage Trust. She has been investigating York County cemeteries, and certainly did not want to miss this one. On this trip, we entered through a side doorway, which was only feet from my ancestors graves. It was a short visit, but certainly brought back memories of my previous adventure.
After the adventure was over, I contacted the York County Commissioners to tell them about my findings. It was later decided that a courthouse would be built at a different location, so this property was safe once again.
Part 3, and the finale of this series will explain the current standing of this historic and unique York city property, and what is in its future.